Watkins Glen: Saturday thoughts

IndyCar commentary — By on July 3, 2010 6:11 pm

(Originally posted by Steph to Planet-IRL.com.)

Let’s take care of business first — tons of on-track activity today.

The Firestone Indy Lights series had three sessions today — two practices and qualifying — after not seeing any track time yesterday. There were no major incidents to speak of, and the only real story to emerge was how utterly destructive James Hinchcliffe was in comparison to the rest of the field. Once this season is over, we may very well be comparing the ebb and flow of the championship standings between the FIL and the IZOD IndyCar Series, actually — it wouldn’t be surprising in the least to see both Will Power and Hinch surge to enough of a points lead in this next stint of road courses to hang on for championship wins.  On the other hand, the FIL field is much richer in talent that prefers road courses, so Hinch will have his work cut out for him. JK Vernay, the current points leader and a definitive road-course talent himself, qualified third; Charlie Kimball, second in the points, will start sixth. But with only 14 cars this weekend running on a 3.4-mile track, the field may string out very quickly and give Hinch the edge he needs to bring home a win. It will be interesting to see how this one pans out.

The IZOD IndyCar Series, on the other hand, gave us plenty of interesting storylines today:

– Despite Paul’s prediction in our preview podcast that KV wasn’t likely to destroy any equipment this weekend due to the Series being on a road course, the morning’s practice session saw EJ Viso lose control coming out of Turn 1, overcorrect and bring it clear across the track, then slam into the barrier in Turn 2. By the time the car came to a stop, all four corners had heavy damage. The team wasn’t able to get the backup prepared in time to qualify, so EJ will start tomorrow’s race from the back of the grid.

– Takuma Sato, however, created a bright spot in KV Racing’s day by putting the #5 Lotus machine into the Fast Six, making him the highest-gridded rookie in the field on the inside of the third row.  He was joined in the Fast Six by the entire Penske stable (who placed their three cars in the top three spots), Dario Franchitti, and Justin Wilson.

– Another rookie who impressed a heck of a lot of people today is Adam Carroll. Running with Andretti Autosport this weekend in his first IZOD IndyCar Series event, he consistently laid down very quick laps and ended the day qualified in 10th place, making him the second-fastest of the five AA drivers. (Marco will start 8th, TK 13th, and RHR 16th.)

– Speaking of Ryan Hunter-Reay, he had a difficult qualifying run due to a problem that is unquestionably becoming a trend. The initial problem was his own — he got sideways and into a sand trap in Turn 8 to bring out the only yellow flag of the session. He got back under way, though, and was on his last hot lap of the session (one which he thought would be fast enough to advance him into the Fast 12) when he came up on the slower car of Milka Duno. Unfortunately, Milka was far off the pace, and RHR’s subsequent loss in momentum cost him the lap. Ryan has since been very vocal and frank with his views on the incident both with the media and with fans via Twitter: after reportedly calling her “the 16th turn” on the radio and “the moving chicane” online, he has clearly jumped on the #parkMilka bandwagon.

– One last quick thing to note before the start of tomorrow’s race: in the five years that the IZOD IndyCar Series has been racing at The Glen, Penske has won the pole all five times but has never left with a victory. As all three Penske cars lead tomorrow’s field to the green flag, we can be certain they will be looking to change that statistic.

With that, time to catch you up on some of my experiences off the track.

Last night, I had the privilege of dining at the legendary Seneca Lodge in the village of Watkins Glen. I’d heard many tales of this place, not the least of which is that it’s packed to the rafters with fans and series personnel all race weekend long, which is certainly consistent with my experience yesterday evening. It has a very rustic feel with wood-lined, arrow-speared walls and hangings along the lines of what one would expect from a place with the word lodge in its name. After a lengthy but pleasant wait on the patio for an available table, I ordered a garlic shrimp pasta that was delicious (if a little overpriced for what it was). However, from the choices made by my fellow diners, I gather that this is more of a meat-and-potatoes type of establishment. In fact, I remarked at one point that this struck me as the sort of restaurant where someone could order a 70 oz slab of meat and eat for free if he or she managed to finish it. It’s a unique spot, the food is good, and it’s worth visiting at least once if for nothing other than taking part in the quintessential Watkins Glen experience.

As for the village itself, accommodation is quite a bit more expensive than in the surrounding towns (and is far from four-star), but it’s well worth the extra cost — it puts you within a five-minute drive of the track as opposed to the 45 minutes or more it takes to travel in from elsewhere. It’s also a very picturesque spot. Last night, the weather cooled off nicely, and there was a lovely fireworks display over the lake. If you place value on your time (or even if you don’t and just want to take into account the amount of gas you’d save by staying closer), the choice becomes easy. Though this is one of those times I worry that being so honest will come back to haunt me. I’ll be annoyed if room prices double before next year!

For campers, on the other hand, space here this weekend is plentiful. I wandered around the infield this morning before the heat made longer bouts of walking unbearable, mostly to get a feel for the track. There was plenty of standard camping space available, and I even happened upon a few open trackside spots in my travels. There aren’t any CCTVs away from the grandstands that I saw, though, so the trackside camping is best occupied by those with a motor home that can be climbed and a headset tuned to IMS Radio for updates.

And speaking of grandstands, purchasing tickets would be a good idea for those not occupying trackside camping. There are apparently one or two general admission viewing mounds around the circuit, but I didn’t find them on my travels this morning, and they certainly wouldn’t have the height to offer great views like the ones at Mid-Ohio. Another key ticket purchase at this track is a paddock pass — the garage area and the pit lane are connected here, which means you really won’t see much of the drivers and teams otherwise.

Of course, all of these observations might be moot if the Series doesn’t return to WGI next season. Every driver who was interviewed today made a point of stating how much fun this track is to drive, and it started to feel like a campaign after a while. However, I’ve heard conflicting reports on how the negotiations have been going between the IICS and ISC in securing a date for next year. For what it’s worth, the NASCAR influence here is highly evident, more so than any other ISC track I’ve visited — their logos are everywhere, and they’re hard-coded into things like on-site track maps and souvenir stands.

A final note: Marlboro has a significant presence here this weekend. There’s a massive tent in the infield that’s offering free swag, video games, and even the chance to be a passenger in a drifting demonstration in exchange for personal contact information. I noted at least one smaller satellite tent in another location as well. It would seem that the Philip Morris connection isn’t as distant as we might think.

I’ll wrap things up post-race tomorrow before I head back north to Toronto.

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